Five Songs of 80s Pop

In case you haven’t realised, I’m not a huge fan of music that occurred during the 80s. There are obvious exceptions (Talking Heads, Swans), but generally speaking, it’s my least favourite decade in terms of output and mainstream production style.

This being said, quite recently, I’ve been getting into that sound a little more and have begun to appreciate some of the better examples. So I forced myself to pick out five in particular. And no cheating by using Talking Heads – that’d be too easy. Here goes…

Michael Jackson – Smooth Criminal

Bad (Epic, 1987)

Yes, you read right, Michael Jackson. Contrary to popular culture’s widely held belief that MJ is a reprehensible and laughable paedophile/psychopath, his back catalogue stands up as being really shit-hot pop music. And the videos – dude can dance. I also don’t think he’s a paedophile. I’m far more inclined to believe he’s a slightly messed up man whose obvious personal difficulties have been exploited time and again by the flesh-eating “celebrity journalist” (read: professional stalkers) maggots of western society. I also happen to believe that calling somebody a paedo as a joke kind of stops being funny VERY QUICKLY.

And so what if he touches children in their special places?

Pick your own low-brow punchline/satirical social commentary now:

  1. Paris Hilton was asking for it!
  2. They’re only children for God’s sake!
  3. He’s earned it!
  4. He’s bad, bad, really really bad!
  5. Well, In today’s society, the media’s sexual portrayal of celebrity minors is somehow acceptable AND commonplace. The Olsen Twins, Charlotte Church, Hillary Duff, and most recently Emma Watson have all been viewed in a sort of neo-Lolita light by large swathes of the male public, in mainstream tabloid newspapers and across the Information Superpornway. In some cases clocks have been spotted online counting down to the day they reach age of consent. This may be partially in jest, but it suggests a latent sexual desire towards younger women who still possess an air of innocence. And yet, the very idea of paedophilia (which is actually distinct from child molestation though the two are concatenated in modern media terms) is also seen as amoral. Strange dumb middle class people can’t seem to see the correlation between the two. Indeed, an absolutely reprehensible American TV show now sensationalises the process of arresting these people, fuelling the fear and hatred and encouraging the public to jump to the conclusion that anybody who is ever in the same room as a child who is not theirs, is probably a paedophile who will wait till your back is turned before asking your six-year-old daughter to flash her breasts… It’s no wonder he is vilified despite the fact he has been acquitted.
  6. Well hey, at least he didn’t appear in Mel Brooks’ dreadfully unfunny sci-fi parody Spaceballs! BECAUSE THAT MOVIE SUCKS FUCKING BALLS!

So anyway, bad taste and Mark Prindle-ism aside, where were we. As yes. This is Smooth Criminal, a song that seems quite blatantly to be about a rape. Nice. Is Annie okay? Well, judging by the song, no not really. The song is driven by a horrifically catchy sampled slap-bass line that goes duh-dugga-dugga-doo-doo/dugga-doo-doo/dugga-doo-doo/duh! And MJ whispers the verses with a growl and a snarl, only breaking into his trademark style in the choruses. Plenty of OW!s in the second half though. Big stabbing synths all 80s style up in yo face, et cetera.

The Moonwalker version of the video is quite probably the single coolest music video I’ve ever seen. Although I should qualify that by saying that I don’t really like music videos at all, but I do kind of love this one.

Lisa Lougheed – Run With Us

The Raccoons (CBC 1987)

One of the most vivid things of my wasted youth was a cartoon that used to be on Saturday mornings, called The Raccoons. The impact this show had on me is quite remarkable. Is it any wonder now that I yearn to live happy-go-lucky in an endless Canadian forest?

This song played over the end credits of the show, and every week I would hear it and think “boy, this is pretty much the coolest song I have ever heard” (being probably 3 or 4 years old at the time). It is ingrained upon my brain, some kind of vague engram of a melody and a lyric that I’ve carried with me for as far back as my memory will go. Does that sound a little sad to you?

Anyway, as the encroaching ennui of the reality of adult life in modern western society sets in, I sit back and wish I could run with them, because they do indeed have everything I need. Sigh.

Yes – It Can Happen

90125 (Atco 1983)

As far as YesWest goes, it was between this and 1987’s Rhythm of Love. I picked this in the end, mostly because the previous two were ’87, and I didn’t want to be saying that I only like songs from 1987 or something.

So, as a Yes fan, for a long time I generally looked down upon this era of the band, for being untrue to the Yes name. These days I still do. This is not Yes. And yet, somehow it is. After all, I’m a big proponent of the idea that a band has to change to survive and keep creating vital music. This version of Yes is pop, with the cold harsh precise production of the 80s. This introduces complex multi-part harmony vocals and crazy crazy digital reverb that goes on seemingly forever.

This song has sitar. Otherwise, it’s basically much the same as the better known hit single Owner of a Lonely Heart. Still some riffing in there, and there’s an actual band at work so it’s not synth-pop by any standard. Lyrically, it reveals such truths as the fact that “You can mend the wires” and also that “There’s a crazy world outside” apparently.

Hmm… now I’m running out of ideas…


Paul Simon – Graceland

Graceland (1986)

I’d like to think I was named after this famous Paul, because I know my father was a fan of this album. Unfortunately the album came out after my birth, leaving me with no real evidence for this theory. Plus, apparently I was named after a family friend who was also ginger. Sigh.

Anyway, I picked the title track because it was a successful pop single, but I could pick just about any of the tracks on Graceland. This is a fucking great record. It’s Paul Simon with African backing musicians, with Simon appropriating all kinds of seemingly alien elements and weaving them into an absolutely incredible tapestry of richly textured pop songs. Songs that taste and smell of dust and wind and trees and grass and THE EARTH.

This song features The Everly Brothers as backing vocalists, which is a bit like The Who having The Beatles as backing singers… Or not. Anyway, jangly guitars and fretless bass abound in this, a song by Paul Simon, who is both an excellent singer-songwriter, and likely a bit of an arrogant prick. As with all the greats, the former absolves him of the latter.

King Crimson – Three of a Perfect Pair

Three of a Perfect Pair (EG 1983)

This last one almost feels like cheating because I really like most of King Crimson anyway. But hey, I picked from one of the two lesser 80s King Crimson releases, both very pop-oriented. But it was between this and one of the 80s Rush hits like Subdivisions. I decided those were more stadium rock, but then I guess so was the Yes track. Oh well. It’s hard you know.

As I was saying, this is a pop song from the 1980s (thus fulfilling two of the established criteria already), with an unremarkable traditional structure. However, it is built from all the components 80s King Crimson was known for, seemingly simple repeating and interlocking twin guitar motifs resolving around a skittering unorthodox rhythm section.

This was cutting edge at the time, a razor-sharp take on the new-wave of New York. Well, the 1981 version was. This record was one half that, and the other half bizarre industrial experiments that don’t really work half as well as you’d hope. Still, this song is a song that’s about mental disorders, depression, schizophrenia, the kinds of topics New Wave loved to explore. It’s got an utterly weird guitar synth solo towards the end that I am completely incapable of describing. Nevertheless, it is awesome.


So there you have it. Maybe the 80s didn’t entirely suck after all. Although I just noticed my posts are not structured well for optimum comedic effect. And so I intend to correct that with this fantastic joke I just thought up:

Q: What time is it when the little hand touches the big hand?
A: In theory either 12:00, 1:05. 2:10. 3:15, 4:20, 5:25, 6:30, 7:35, 8:40, 9:45, 10:50 or 11:55, but since in an analogue clock the hour hand usually moves gradually between clock points over the course of an hour, the actual times of coincidence will be out by an increasing degree of minutes the further clockwise the hour hand is!

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